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U.S. Department of State

Preventing Conflicts Before They Erupt

Donald K. Steinberg, Deputy Director for Policy Planning
Remarks to the Open Forum
Washington, DC
September 23, 2002

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It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to address this important discussion on international conflict resolution, and to honor the Applied Conflict Resolution Organizations Network and the individual nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that form its membership. I would like to begin with a few comments to pick up on the themes outlined so well by Under Secretary Grossman to provide additional texture to our discussions.

This program could not be more timely. There is a broad and growing recognition among practitioners and theorists alike that conflict avoidance, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction form the bedrock of diplomacy and the promotion of American national security interests around the world.

It is impossible to achieve or even adequately address the fundamental goals outlined in President Bush’s National Security Strategy – including promoting freedom and good governance, sustainable development, free enterprise, and international stability and cooperation – in the presence of violence. Conflicts and failed states are breeding grounds for threats to our national security, including terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, trafficking of women and children, illegal drugs, international crime, and even diseases.

They are also expensive: the UN estimates that the international community spent well over $250 billion on eight major humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping operations in the 1990’s alone. By contrast, the cost of many of the programs we will discuss here today to build dialogues across ethnic and regional lines, strengthen civil society, create rule of law and address other underlying causes of conflict is a fraction of that amount.

Regrettably, we seem as a nation and an international community to be able to provide vast amounts of disaster assistance once conflict emerges, and yet we struggle to find resources to prevent these emergencies from occurring. Too often, to paraphrase General Pinckney, we seem to say: "Billions for relief, but very few pennies for prevention."

Given these scarce resources, then, there is an added imperative to know where to put our ounce of prevention. Looking back on the past decade, I constantly hear people say: "If we had only paid more attention and dedicated more resources to Rwanda, or Somalia, or Haiti, or the former Yugoslavia, we could have avoided so much suffering."

Of course this is true, but it suggests a degree of prescience in anticipating conflict that we do not yet have. Take Africa, for example: most observers in 1990 believed that the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa would be the primary source of conflict throughout the continent, and yet even with the tragic violence between Mandela’s release and his election in 1994, the process marched ahead.

By contrast, if you were looking at Africa in 1995, how could you predict that former comrades in arms in the Horn – Ethiopia and Eritrea – would turn on each other; or that ethnically united and resource rich Botswana would be ravaged and potentially destabilized by HIV/AIDS; or that a single man – Jonas Savimbi – could defy the combined will of the international community and his countrymen and plunge Angola back into senseless war?

In trying to predict where conflict will emerge, experts within government have looked at scores of conflicts over past decades and identified "associative" if not "causative" factors. Nine of these are particularly instructive.

  • First is the degree of political participation, responsive governance, and rule of law. Societies must have safety valves to permit the peaceful redress of grievances.
  • Second is the nexus of urbanization, population pressure, and the state of economy. A quick route to conflict is through youth unemployment and lack of opportunity.
  • The condition of the education system is vital. Investment in schools and in girls’ education in particular is the single most important factor in improving health, agriculture, and other socio-economic standards, and giving youth a stake in the future.
  • Next is the existence or absence of institutions of civil society, including women’s organizations.
  • Fifth is religious and ethnic homogeneity, or at least the extent to which differences are tolerated.
  • Next is: "Location, location, location." The role of neighbors in either mediating or fueling disputes is fundamental. Countries in bad neighborhoods risk spillover from armed combatants, refugees and arms flows; those is good neighborhoods receive a powerful dampening effect on potential violence.
  • Seventh is the role of the military and security forces in the political structure.
  • Eighth is international engagement, including the openness of the economy. Conflicts are like mushrooms: they grow best in darkness.
  • Finally, has there been upheaval during past 15 years? Contrary to the warning on an investment prospectus, the past record is an indicator of future performance.

These are among the factors we need to monitor as indicators and potential triggers of conflict, and this is one area where governments are highly dependent on the work of civil society to provide ground truth. We cannot do much about many of these factors, nor can we stop natural disasters that often translate into conflict. Still, every drought does not have to become a famine.

As Secretary Powell said in Johannesburg, it is not the lack of rain alone that has pushed three million Zimbabweans into South Africa and millions more toward starvation; it is the failed policies and lack of respect for rule of law and human rights of Robert Mugabe.

I am just returning from the World Summit on Sustainable Development concluded earlier this month in Johannesburg, where governments, international organizations, civil society, and businesses came together to strengthen the three pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, investment in people, and environmental stewardship. Sustainable development is a vaccine against conflict.

Under President Bush’s leadership, we unveiled at Johannesburg four new partnerships that unite our talents, energy, and resources. For example, the "Water for the Poor" initiative leverages $1.6 billion to expand access to clean water and sanitation, and improve watershed management around the world.

The "Clean Energy" initiative will help families replace wood and dung with modern energy sources in indoor cooking, helping eliminate indoor pollution that causes two million premature deaths each year from respiratory illness.

Similar initiatives will promote sustainable agriculture, protect the Congo Basin ecosystem, combat HIV/AIDS, build low-cost housing, and expand education.

There was also a strong emphasis in Johannesburg on the role of women not just as victims of conflict and under-development, but as the key to preventing and ending conflict. As Secretary Powell has often stated, women must have a seat at the table as planners, implementers and beneficiaries of development projects, private sector initiatives, distribution of humanitarian relief, and peace processes themselves.

In all these efforts, we welcome our strong partnerships and division of labor with international organizations and NGOs like those in ACRON. Your organizations play key, even decisive roles in building democracy and rule of law, promoting economic development, reforming education, and strengthening civil society around the world.

You provide expertise in electoral processes, investigations of human rights abuses, transitional justice arrangements, and dialogues across political, religious, and cultural lines – areas where the involvement of foreign governments, including ours, might be viewed as interference in internal affairs.

In the darkest corners of the world, you have been the eyes, the ears, and often the conscience of international community. Within this country, you have been steadfast advocates for international engagement, especially in the face of those who would’ve had us pull back in the wake of the Cold War.

On behalf of our Government, I want to thank you for these efforts. I am proud to share this panel with you and I look forward to the upcoming discussions of how we can expand our cooperation in pursuit of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Thank you.

Released on September 23, 2002